The maritime industry will be soon at the cusp of using almost fully automated commercial vessels – most likely still with smaller human crews on board, but with new integrated systems that will run ships more efficiently.

“We are now at the dawn here of a ship intelligence era…It’s coming. It’s coming quickly,” Oskar Levander, vice president of innovation for Rolls-Royce, said at the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers’ World Maritime Technology Conference in Providence, R.I.

“We still have the captain, the expensive guy,” Levander said, describing reduced crewing that would monitor systems and get vessels in and out of port. “We don’t get down to no cost, we get down to half the cost…Altogether, we can simplify the ship.”

Using an automated, “lean ro/ro” ship concept by Rolls-Royce, Levander described how “utilizing ship intelligence” will simplify construction – with less need for crew accommodations for example – and reduce fuel and hourly operation costs.

“Most likely you will have some crew left,” Levander said. In the early years, automated vessels will most likely have local applications, such as short-haul, all-electric ferries, and offshore service vessels.

But remote piloting is another possibility – and for some uses has a good safety argument in favor, Levander said.

“Most of the marine (casualty) claims, like 85 percent, are due to human error,” Levander said. He compared the risk of having “an offshore service vessel with 20 people on board in the North Sea in a hurricane, and two people (remote pilots) in a room on land.”

Fifty or 60 years into the future, “the ships will be quite autonomous,” he said.

Levander’s predictions elicited a range of interest and skepticism from listeners. One questioner asked whether, if Google is developing a self-parking car, might naval architects one day do the same?

“I think, technically, you will get to that point…to have a ship dock itself,” Levander replied. But he foresees that questions of legal responsibilities, and society’s broader perception of risks, will probably demand that human captains and pilots be on board.

Other listeners recalled their experiences at sea to question how many crew an automated ship would really need to handle the small but critical maintenance tasks of spotting a leaky pipe or tightening a stray bolt. Some thought the sea’s ever-present capacity for surprise too much.

“Chaos theory rules the marine world,” said Dave Weathers, vice president/ inland waters for American Maritime Officers. “The level of automation they’re talking about is so large. So much of what tugboats do is by feel and experience. It will be a long time before the regulatory bodies sign off.”

Levander likened the prospect of more automation to what has evolved in the civilian airline industry. Early on, in-flight engine shutdowns happened often enough that having a flight engineer on the pilots’ deck was considered essential.

“Now no one expects that,” he said. “Now a pilot can go his whole career with experiencing an in-flight shutdown.”